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Rekindling memories of Van Cliburn, the Cold War, Kirill Kondrashin, etc

Cliburn Moscow

A friend sent me a link to her favorite performance of Tschaikovsky’s Bb minor, WARHORSE concerto– the one with the big splash CHORD opener.

Pianists dream of conquering these sonorities without a falter, but not necessarily in their lifetime.

For me the easiest way to reach to the stars on this one, was to sit at our family’s sallow, 1950s yellow dinette table and pretend I was Van Cliburn. Shaping my small hands to the imagined size of the sonorities, I played along with Kirill Kondrashin’s RCA Victor recording.

A feted hero of the Cold War, breaking the ice with my sizzling Moscow performance, I had the audience in my palms, riveted to my sweeping, sculpted phrases and shimmering passage work. And in the absence of a cultural or musical divide, I was offered a RED carpet of love and goodwill, drowned in flowers, bravos– my name, “Vanya” cut through deafening applause.

To Americans, I was just TEXAS-bred “VAN,” taller than most, and with a shock of red hair. My appearance singled me out in a crowd. I had the look of an Adonis athlete with my towering height and big, powerful hands.

Were I a basketball player, I’d be hoisted up on the shoulders of my teammates, in Spartan victory.

But with my ice breaker, even in the hockey arena, I’d be regaled when I returned to the states– showered with ticker tape along Lower Broadway.

Those were the days when take cover drills and mass hysteria were par for the course. Second-graders would squeeze themselves under tiny chairs, wondering what happened– or even worse, what MIGHT happen.

While they were immunized against polio, the threat of an impending World War III left them unprotected and vulnerable.

Flash forward to the Millennium:

Van Cliburn is a legend in his own time–a tireless advocate for the arts, a builder from the ground up of his Van Cliburn Foundation that sponsors an International Piano Competition. He’s been a life-long piano ambassador, spreading LOVE and good will at every turn.

We owe him a debt of gratitude.

I recently learned that Van, now 78, has advanced bone cancer, and like so many of his admirers around the world, I pray for him.

The best tribute I can bestow that’s at my fingertips, decades past my Bronx era table-top tapping, is to replay Van’s historic Moscow performance. So here it is:

And a snatch from a 1962 rendering, back in Moscow– third movement–(gorgeous, GORGEOUS!!)

NYT Cliburn page 1

P.S. I heard Cliburn revisit this concerto at Lewisohn Stadium. My mother took me, and we sat pretty high up in the great outdoors. The opening chords and Cliburn’s movements were unsynchronized, but I recall that evening as a breathtaking musical experience!



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